- the Hungarian public administration back in Budapest will be much more efficient in defining Hungarian national interest very early on, and
- our Brussels based diplomats will be even more competent in representing these positions
- furthermore we hope for more Hungarian lobbyists/activists in Brussels.
30 June 2011
29 June 2011
27 June 2011
26 June 2011
23 June 2011
15 May 2011
Even though the voting rules have been changed since, if you look at this year's voting results (see here), you can find the above patterns repeating themselves. Slovenian TV has produced an interesting map, that you can reach here (Thanks for @DraganBrBr for the link - for those few who don't speak Slovenian look at the video around the middle of the page). Through @anamariadutceac we found that Spiegel online has also published an interesting take on the cultural significance of Eurovision - see here.
Sunday Music - Eurovision Pidgin English (15/05/2011)
11 May 2011
1. Expectations management
Over one year since Lisbon entered into force, people still misunderstand the role of the rotating presidency, falsely comparing it to the pre-Lisbon reality in their minds (those who knew the pre-Lisbon reality, at all). International media as well as our domestic audience expects the same visibility from a presidency as before the permanent President of the European Council and the High Representative was spun off from the Council. This is obvious from the common mistake of talking about the “EU Presidency” (Van Rompuy cabinet member Richard Corbett is on a constant crusade against its usage.)
Unrealistic expectations about what the rotating presidency can and cannot do pose a challenge, manifesting itself in the most surprising questions: Why was the presidency not invited to the Paris Summit on Libya? Why did the presidency decide to organize a summit on energy? Why was the Eastern Partnership summit postponed? And these questions came from people working in EU affairs…imagine the level of confusion in citizens’ heads about the role of the rotating presidency.
Our advice to future presidencies is to exercise the virtues of humility and patience, use every opportunity to educate people about the post-Lisbon reality and never take it personally.
2. Know your environment
The folly of talking about an “EU Presidency” becomes evident if we look at all the other players around it. Although we talk about Presidency Priorities, in reality a rotating presidency can hardly influence more than a small fraction of its agenda. The rest is either inherited from previous presidencies (who would have often inherited them from even earlier, such as the patent dossier) or comes from new proposals by the Commission, from a report adopted in Parliament, from European Council conclusions, or simply from external events. It is justified to talk about presidency priorities, but they must be understood in their context: the presidency’s ultimate priority is to make the best possible effort on all files, but we can indicate those where we are planning to pay special attention.
We have been asked why did we decide to push for closing accession negotiations with Croatia, adopting a Roma Framework Strategy and furthering the Schengen Accession of Romania and Bulgaria. - While not denying that these subjects are specially dear to us, we did not put them on the agenda, we could not have.
As a result, presidency communication on individual issues is often surrounded by communication on the same issue by other players. They will further their own image and often “forget” to mention the presidency (except if it comes to the blame game – see here).
There is nothing malicious in this as all institutions have their own agenda, creating Brussels’ version of checks and balances. But in practice it can be frustrating for spokespeople, especially as presidencies are handicapped in this game. Presidencies come and go, thus press staff from other institutions usually look at presidency communicators as the weakest link. Plus ‘permanent’ institutions usually have more firepower – just think of the Commission’s 27 spokespeople and their support staff, or the EP which has 700+ spokespeople…
So what can a presidency do?
- First, take it easy and keep it fair and reasonable. Don’t pick fights on small issues. If you are a troublemaker, you lose influence.
- Be open and courteous. We hold the cabinet of the President of the European Council and the press people at the European Parliament and the Commission in high regard and we never kept that opinion to ourselves - they proved to be very cooperative in different ways.
- Rely on the Council General Secretariat – they are professional, non-political, know their way around and dedicated to help the presidencies. At the beginning of the presidency regular coordination with them helped us a lot and it still does.
As fellow blogger Europasionaria put it, being a new member state in Brussels is like being a woman at work. You have to work twice as hard and you will never win full approval from your male colleagues. (We take her word for what it must feel like.) A presidency from a new member state is double the pain. If one looks simply at the number of files advanced substantially or closed during the Slovenian or Czech presidencies, they were clearly among the best presidencies lately. Still, collective memory in Brussels has practically forgotten the Slovenian Presidency and remembers the Czech Presidency as a failure, which is infuriating.
The strategy to cope with this is simple: do work twice as hard, learn the rules of the game, be assertive to a point but don’t be judgmental or bitter about it, and don’t be shy about your achievements.
4. The unbearable lightness of temporariness
All other presidencies are permanent (meaning they last at least 2,5 years), it is only the rotating presidency that changes every 6-months. This has an effect on practical communications:
- The rotating presidency works harder than others. It is a frantic 6-months, with people working 6 days a week and 12 hours a day (or more). Initially for example we were surprised that some other spokespersons were not in the office by 07:30 am and would not be available after 8 pm. Also, there were several important events where other spokespeople simply did not show up to our surprise – which by the way means we have the first-hand experience of the events, which can be used (by tweeting, quick phone calls, background discussions, etc.) Since the others don’t need to prove themselves in a mere 6 months and such frantic pace obviously cannot be sustained permanently, we had to learn to tolerate normal people working at other institutions. After all, it was us, not them, who at the end of last year said goodbye to our families, who accepted that we would leave home in the mornings before they wake up and arrive after they have gone to bed. (The upside is that our kids can hardly tell if we are in Brussels or Strasbourg…if that’s an upside…)
- The institutional bureaucracy tends to follow the permanent president, not the temporary one, which will be gone in a few months’ time. The only way for presidency spokespeople to deal with this is to team up with future and previous presidencies and come to common understandings vis-à-vis the permanent presidencies and the bureaucracies.
- Steep learning curve. By the time you would get used to it, the presidency is over, so you have to get used to it quicker. Try and prepare a lot, but also remember that you cannot “out-prepare” life and the more you prepare the less flexible you are...
5. Know your value
Finally, with all the challenges, this is why we think we are still important: the rotating presidency is the only institution that is not completely Brussels based, and the one with which EU citizens, nationals of the different Member States, can identify with. If we really want to bring the EU closer to the citizens, then long-live the rotating presidency with all its shortcomings!
9 May 2011
It has been popularized by the Bacon-number (how many degrees away an actor is from Kevin Bacon) and by the Erdős-number (how many degrees away a mathematician is from the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős, who published more papers than anyone in mathematics and who worked with hundreds of collaborators.) For the select few, having acted in a film and written a science paper, there is even a Bacon-Erdős Number (e.g. Natalie Portman or Stephen Hawking).
But how does Humphrey Bogart relate to Europe Day? Well, loosely interpreting the six degrees of separation theory, everything is connected on Earth to everything, you just have to find the links.
So let's see a thought experiment Although everyone connects in their minds Europe Day to Robert Schumann and his declaration, the original idea actually comes from someone else. It was an Austro-Hungarian-Japanese count, Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, who proposed to organize a Europe Day. Of course, the originally proposed day was not the 9th of May, but the 21st of March, the day of the Spring equinox. (He addressed a letter to the Council of Europe to suggest this solution in 1955.)
But how to get from Coudenhove-Kalergi to Bogart? We, Kalergi was the model for the resistance hero, Victor Laszlo in the movie Casablanca (played by actor Paul Henreid ).
So it’s easy: Europe Day was invented by Coudenhove-Kalergi, who served as the model for Viktor Laszlo in Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart. That makes three degrees of separation in our opinion.
Now we may start working on the Kovács & Kováts number in Brussels... this will deserve another post. But for the time being, Happy Europe Day to all!
3 May 2011
Presidency hat or Member State hat?
The first lesson we learned already before the start of the Presidency was that the media does not differentiate between the Presidency and the Member State holding it. At the same time, we are bound by rules that make a very clear difference. We speak on behalf of the Council, so we had to forget any national positions on-the-record. By now, we have managed to more or less separate the Presidency from domestic debates, at least in our direct communication. (This does not mean taking any position in those debates – simply a Presidency is aimed at building compromise between 27 member states, while domestic political debates are rarely about compromise.)
EU speaking with one voice?
Presidency and the EU - We are seen as one, as “Europe” (which is wrong, but unavoidable) both by our own public and by our global partners, still we communicate in a cacophony. From the British tabloid press talking about “EU chiefs” plotting against the UK (see a classic piece here), to US or Chinese diplomats, it is almost impossible to explain the intricacies of EU institutional infighting decision-making. (Through Euramerican we learned that the EU Delegation in Washington has published a good explanation, see here. But we wonder how many people inside the Beltway would know the difference.)
Brussels journalists, a special species?
We must talk about the Brussels press corps with appreciation. They were not only very helpful with us, but showed slightly different attitudes than the national press. Brussels journalists are non-political, but very subject oriented (most of the time). A fellow spokesman has hit the nail on its head by claiming that ministers coming to Brussels must be shocked by questions like “in article 3, paragraph 4, an extra word has been added, does this mean that…”. We always call the attention of colleagues from home that journalists in Brussels have an incredible institutional memory, sometimes working here for decades and knowing the files on the table better than some experts. This is a challenge for spokespeople, but it also improves our performance. Not only do they keep us on our toes non-stop, but we often learn things from the journalists themselves.
Also, as with everything in life, relationships do matter. Not because journalists would be biased if they knew you, but a good working relationship builds trust and allows for some maneuvering room. We would be disappointed if any of our fellow journalist colleagues would spare us form criticism or praise us without a reason. But we do certainly appreciate the occasional early warning, the friendly double-checking, once or twice a strategically placed question in a press conference, and the friendly mood in discussions. Spokespeople are humans, too
What makes a good spokesperson?
The in-depth knowledge of journalists and the importance of relationships bring up the evergreen question of what makes a good spokesperson: is it more in-depth knowledge of the subject (aka credibility) or a longer experience in communications and media? (Don’t get us wrong, both are needed, but to a varying degree.) The answer obviously depends on the nature of the job: being a spokesperson for a nuclear power plant requires a good understanding of the complex processes, thus professional background is required, while the example of BP shows that a good expert may not be the best spokesperson in a crisis situation.
In case of EU spokespeople we feel a stronger emphasis on understanding the very complex EU institutional structure and the policies as compared to an extensive experience with the media.
On- or off-the-record?
The Brussels media scene is different from many national ones in the extensive use of off-the-record briefings. There is a complex web of unwritten arrangements of how the information given to journalists can be used: deep background, EU-sources only, presidency sources, etc. The reason for this is the complex nature of EU negotiations, where the most valuable information usually cannot be attributed to its source, and nobody has an information monopoly. In the Council, there are at least 27 national delegations that the journalists can contact for information, creating a unique information exchange – see our post ‘Under the buttonwood tree in Brussels’ for more on this.
We tried to list our questions in this post in a very honest way (maybe too honest?). As you could see, we do not have a definite answer to most of these dilemmas, even though we did succeed in dealing with them in our daily routine.
But we do have some definite answers and recommendations based on lessons learned, which we will present in our next post on this issue.
1 May 2011
This complements the long line of Obama-Osama blunders. Here are a few:
3. Mitt Romney back in 2007, going off on the wrong track after getting it almost right at the start “Actually, just look at what Osam — uh — Barack Obama, said just yesterday. Barack Obama calling on radicals, jihadists of all different types, to come together in Iraq. That is the battlefield. That is the central place, he said. Come join us under one banner.”
29 April 2011
11 April 2011
Last Wednesday (6th of April), Zsolt Németh, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs has replaced High Representative Ashton in the European Parliament’s debate on Bahrain, Syria and Yemen (see the EbS recording here and the EP recording here – please note that these are not official versions). As all EU geeks know, at political discussions (vis-à-vis third countries or the European Parliament) the High Representative can only be replaced by other politicians, which means someone from the presidency. Considering the heavy agenda of the High Representative lately, Hungarian politicians spend considerable time standing in for her. This was one of those events.
Our minister of state spoke in English and all went fine and smooth, a very measured language on the situation in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain. Then the members of parliament spoke and asked several questions. At the end of the debate, our minister of state rose again to react to the issues raised. Being a Hungarian politician, he switched into Hungarian this time.
This is when the story became interesting. (If you are watching the recording on EbS, watch from the 57th minute.) In the humble translation of Kovács and Kováts, our minister of state said: “But I think, that these countries cannot be put in the same basket: there are countries where military intervention was unavoidable due to the civil war [meaning Libya and Ivory Coast], and there are countries that we are discussing about now [meaning Yemen, Syria, Bahrain].*” He made a very clear distinction between the countries being the subject of the debate on the one hand and Libya and Ivory Coast on the other hand.
However the English interpretation started to wonder into a surprising direction by translating his words as follows: “But we should not throw all of these countries into the same boat. I think, because of the civil war intervention had to take place.” People listening to the debate in English must have been very confused, about who wants to intervene where.
Then Mr Németh continued with the same, measured message in Hungarian: “These authoritarian and repressive countries are dancing around and playing with the use of force, as well.**” This was the moment where the interpretation totally deviated from the meaning and translated his words as follows: “We have been discussing these three countries now, where there are authoritarian regimes which are also playing with fire and where there is a risk of intervention.” Those listening in English must have thought that they understand the meaning: the EU wants to intervene in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen!! (This is what was translated, but this was not what the minister said in Hungarian.)
The watchful Andrew Rettman of EUObserver, was listening to the debate in English and picked up what seemed to be a story. (It is not his fault that he does not speak Hungarian, so he could not realize that he was quoting the interpreter, but not the minister!) We have received a few questions on the issue and our diplomats have put out a few fires by explaining what was said in reality.We like to think that it was only our quick reaction that avoided a bigger diplomatic crisis.
Having listened to the French and the German language interpretation in the recording, we have a feeling that the text was first interpreted from Hungarian into German and the English interpreter picked it up from the German. This better explains the extreme distortion of the message. (The FR and DE versions are erroneous too, but slightly closer to reality.)
Don’t get us wrong. We know that the interpreters have a hell of a job translating in 23 languages and theirs is a remarkable achievement. They are the silent mechanics who make the EU machine function. But this raises the question, whether languages are really equal. It seems that speaking a small language will put you in a disadvantageous situation. Will such interpretation problems make politicians/diplomats less likely to use their official language? We hope not, but this is another good reason to carry on with our Brussels Pidgin English series...
*HU original: De azt gondolom, hogy nem keverhetőek össze ezek az országok, ahol elkerülhetetlenné vált a polgárháborús helyzet miatt a katonai beavatkozás, azokkal az országokkal, amelyekről most tárgyalunk.
** HU original: Noha, ezek a represszív országok, ezek az autoriter, represszív országok, ezek táncolnak és játszanak az erőszak alkalmazásával is.
8 April 2011
6 April 2011
- Challenge/Workload: Blogging is a lot of fun. We write our articles in the early morning hours, as we start in the office around 07:00 and finish close to midnight. (The support from our families during the Presidency, should be the subject of another post – which will be difficult because they wish to remain anonymous.) We have no time to write during the day, still the blogging has helped us develop a kind of “situational awareness” not to let pass by the events of a day/week but consciously make a story out of them. This helps us to see the Hungarian Presidency from a reporter’s point of view, which helps us to keep journalists better informed. We wonder how do “professional” bloggers pick their subjects and how do they work?
- Feedback / added-value: we receive a lot of feedback mostly from journalists and diplomats in Brussels that they read us on a regular basis. What is interesting is that these positive feedbacks we receive informally usually concern our least popular articles, while the most popular articles are rarely mentioned in personal discussions. A few examples: the Sunday Music post on ‘Dalida and Egypt’, the ‘Book that everyone should read before the European Council’ and the ‘Visual messages at summit meetings’ have been commended repeatedly at meetings/receptions, while their readership has been relatively low. At the same time, the Brussels Pidgin English series (especially the opening post and the last one, on a ‘Lingua franca for Europe’) has received some of the most hits.
- Two posts appear as exceptions, where both the pageviews and the personal feedback are very positive: obviously our April foolery, the ‘Hungarian Presidency extended’ and the ‘Tweet that moved the Euro’. These give us hope that we can find the right EU subjects and the right angle that are both popular and interesting from a professional point of view. The ultimate aim, as many have stated before, is to help connecting the Brussels blogging bubble with the national blogospheres and thus bring the EU closer to the Member States.
- Presenting everyday life in the Presidency: We are convinced that the rotating presidency is the last link that connects the Brussels Ivory Tower to the reality in the Member States. In this regard the Lisbon Treaty has made communication with the citizens more difficult by creating even more institutional players, who are all based in Brussels (while admitting all the diplomatic and practical arguments for creating the new bodies). We are doing our best to strengthen the cooperation between the rotating presidencies by meeting regularly the Polish and Danish colleagues to have joint projects and to share with them the our experiences and ideas.
- Copyright: What we knew „in theory” became painfully evident - copyright sucks (in its current form). It is a pain to try to locate media that’s completely safe to use. Even though we are not making any money on this, and you could argue we are bringing a tiny amount of extra public interest to the works we use, we must be careful with copyright. Sad. Any suggestions?
- Traffic 1: We have recieved traffic from very suprising locations (if google stats are anything to go by): we advertised it to our circle of friends around the world, but didnt expect to have thousands of visitors for example from the US. We are wondering who our readers are. Anyone willing to share how you ended up reading us?*
- Traffic 2: a lot of traffic seems to come from directly forwarded links, at least we dont see a match between all traffic and referral sites. In general, it would be nice to know more in depth our traffic stats than what google provides. Can anyone suggest something?
- Comments: we havent been able to get you to comment. We expected that part of our „payout” would be to engage with people in discussions. Maybe we are not provocative enough? But even our „stellar posts” (Pidgin English series and April’s foolery) didn’t attract much comment. We would have loved to read arguments for or against French, or people saying that it is a Hungarian trait not to be able to let go of a presidency, but it didnt happen. (It did happen in email to a limited extent, but that keeps them hidden from the wider public.) What’s the secret to get you to comment?